Hacking as a broad phenomenon and the hackstable future

The always-interesting Venkatesh Rao turns his attention to the shopworn phrase "hacking" (as in "body-hacking," "college-hacking" and so forth), and concludes that it is actually underused. Hacking, in Rao's view, is "a pattern of local, opportunistic manipulation of a non-disposable complex system that causes a lowering of its conceptual integrity, creates systemic debt and moves intelligence from systems into human brains." And yeah, that's got a lot of obscure and difficult ideas in it, but the essay in which he unpacks it is, as ever, well worth your attention, especially for the idea of "hackstability," which Rao says is "an alternative to collapse."

All you can hope for is to keep hacking and extending its life in increasingly brittle ways, and hope to avoid a big random event that triggers collapse. This is technological deficit economics.

Now extend the argument to all of civilization as a single massive technology that can never be thrown away, and you can make sense of the idea of hackstability as an alternative to collapse. Maybe if you keep hacking away furiously enough, and grabbing improvements where possible, you can keep a system alive indefinitely, or at least steer it to a safe soft-landing instead of a crash-landing...

So what is the hackstable future? What reason is there to believe that hacking can keep up with the downward pull of entropy? I am not entirely sure. The way big old cities seem to miraculously survive indefinitely on the brink of collapse gives me some confidence that hackstability is a meaningful concept.

Collapse is the easiest of the three scenarios to understand, since it requires no new concepts. If the rate of entropy accumulation exceeds the rate at which we can keep hacking, we may get sudden collapse.

Hacking the Non-Disposable Planet

(Image: There I fixed it, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from dan4th's photostream)